Eye-Opening Experience Israeli summer camps help underprivileged, at-risk kids find their way

JERUSALEM — Most schools are veritable ghost towns during the summer months. But in the halls of four high schools in the Israeli development towns of Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi, Arad and Dimona, the sounds of learning, life and laughter can still be heard this season.

For five weeks this summer, 27 students from Yeshiva University have come to Israel to run four summer camps for approximately 300 teenagers, many of whom are underprivileged and at-risk. The Counterpoint Israel camps, all located in development towns in southern Israel, each run for 12 days and offer campers a chance to work on their English, as they enjoy regular camp activities such as sports, arts and crafts, drumming and cooking. In addition, campers learn about issues relevant to them, such as Internet safety and time and money management, all while studying Jewish history and heritage, culture and Diaspora relations. Campwide contests offer a chance to show off their competitive edge, and field trips take them to parts of the country they’ve never seen before — including the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

But most importantly, say organizers, camp gives these eighth- to 10-graders structure that would otherwise be missing from their summer. In Israel, camps for teenagers are in short supply, and when there are camps available, many families are not able to afford them. At the Counterpoint camps, though, the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services picks up the tab for underprivileged families. And whereas typical high school classes have up to 35 students, at these four summer camps there are three counselors for every eight to 10 campers.

Though some campers and counselors lose touch after the 12-day experience, others forge connections that last long after the summer is over. “You’re Superman,” exclaimed a boy named Bar to 20-year-old YU student Elan Rotenberg of Baltimore. “No, I’m just Elan,” his counselor answered humbly. Not letting go, Bar insisted, “Well, you’re Superman to me.”

Before camp began, the YU students had a week-long orientation to prepare them for camp and to teach them the skills they would need to succeed. Orientation included presentations by Counterpoint counselors from previous summers.

Even though it’s summer, the kids seem to be enjoying some classroom sessions that can last more than an hour.

“I thought camp was going to be boring,” one camper began. “I came the first day to see if it was fun, and I thought I would leave early. But it was fun, so I came every day!”

“Every summer, Counterpoint campers find new levels of confidence through the expansion of their English vocabularies; the acquisition of knowledge and skills leaves the campers with a heightened sense of accomplishment,” said Kiva Rabinsky, director of Counterpoint Israel. “Additionally, dialoguing with their American counselors, who are religious Jews, and taking part in Jewish heritage programming results in the exploration of their personal and
Jewish identity — exciting growth of a different kind.

“Our hope,” added Rabinsky, “is that our multifaceted and innovative Counterpoint programming will improve the skills of the Israeli teens while helping them develop a positive self-image and a strong connection with traditional Jewish values and their own Jewish identities.”

Each camper who participates in Counterpoint enters with a clean slate; counselors are not told anything about who has a troubled background and who doesn’t, so all the teens start out on even footing. They show up to camp for a 9:30 a.m. start time and stay to hang out with their counselors past 2:45 p.m., when camp is dismissed. Over the 12 days, the campers form bonds with their counselors and develop a sense of empowerment and self-worth.

Our hope is that our multifaceted and innovative Counterpoint programming will improve the skills of the Israeli teens while helping them develop a positive self-image and a strong connection with traditional Jewish values.

YU student Gabriella Stein, 21, from Bala Cynwyd, Pa., who is studying communications and education, came on the program because she loves teaching and hopes to go into social work. Just days into the program, she said, “I feel we’ve already made a difference. We’re already friends with these kids; we’re already connected to them.”

Benji Shedlo, 20, of Silver Spring, Md., said that it’s not only the campers who are learning and getting a lot out of this experience. He told a story that to him epitomizes his time here. On a field trip to Jerusalem the campers were approached on the street by a homeless man begging for change. Despite their own meager resources, the campers dug into their pockets to give the man any change they could spare. They also offered him a bottle of water.

“The potential these kids have is really impressive,” said Shedlo.

One of the markers of success for the program, said Rabinsky, is seeing YU participants get involved in their communities in the future.

According to Rabbi Kenneth Brander, YU’s vice president for university and community life, many leaders of Jewish communities in North America and Israel are products of Counterpoint. Brander himself is a past head adviser of Counterpoint Canada.

Shedlo said that his experience this summer has been eye-opening.

“I came on Counterpoint because I wanted to give back to Israel,” he explained. “It’s like, rather than giving these kids fish so they can live for a day, we are teaching them to fish, which is the highest form of charity. We’re helping them become successful and in that way we are helping make Israel a stronger place for the future.”

Netanya Weiss is a freelancer living in Jerusalem.

Yankee Doodle’s Dandy For Kids Two Baltimore moms give parents, children space to create

From left: Kevin Ralston, Heather Ralston, Mason Tortora, Judith Tortora, with Mya Tortora on her lap, and Jon Tortora.(Provided)

From left: Kevin Ralston, Heather Ralston, Mason Tortora, Judith Tortora, with Mya Tortora on her lap, and Jon Tortora.(Provided)

For most people, the word “lawyer” doesn’t bring to mind images of arts and crafts or creativity, but for people who know Judith Tortora, an accomplished lawyer and mother of two, that preconception doesn’t hold true.

“Two years ago my family and my business partner’s family sat around a Shabbat dinner table discussing a new business we wanted to start,” said Tortora. “Soon thereafter, Yankee Doodle Art Studio was brought to life.”

The unique venture, co-founded by Tortora’s friend and business partner Heather Ralston, who has eight years of teaching experience, provides a clean and organized space for both parents and children to embrace their creative side.

The partners and their families spend a lot of time together, and both women agreed that Baltimore was missing a piece of family entertainment, where parents and kids could go to have a meaningful and educational experience without breaking the bank.

“Yankee Doodle provides several craft options that use multiple mediums which provide children different sensory experiences that enrich their development and creativity,” said Tortora.

The name came about because Tortora has a lot of family in the military and also because when she was discussing the idea of a studio, the city was preparing to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore and the writing of the Star-Spangled Banner.

“We wanted to connect to something in Baltimore and with a name that has to do with arts and crafts, so we chose a play on words to be patriotic,” said Tortora.

Tortora compares the Yankee Doodle Art Studio experience to that of a restaurant. When customers sit at a table, a staff member approaches and asks,  ‘What do you want to create today?’ Yankee Doodle Art Studio provides all of the materials, and customers can take home their projects the same day.

The layout of the studio was designed with the help of educational consultants, and activities such as making soaps, lanterns and placemats are offered.

“We have an educational thread throughout our store; everything is arranged in a specific way,” said Ralston. “Everything is at eye level [for the kids]. I would walk around the store on my knees so I could see it on their level.”

Aside from the craft activities, there is space for kids and parents to take a break from their projects when needed. Tortora noted that at other art studios, customers are charged a sitting fee and then pay for the projects they create separately. At Yankee Doodle Art, customers are only charged for the projects they create.

Parents are encouraged to join in the creativity too, but they can be as involved as much or as little as they choose.

“We have what we call “doodlers” on staff, and they take your child around and show them what to do and help them each step of the way,” said Tortora, adding that staff is trained to work with kids of all ages as well as adults. Staff personalities and their enthusiasm are often what keep people coming back too.

Everything is at eye level [for the kids]. I would walk around the store on my knees so I could see it on their level.

“Even when [your kids] are done with the crafts, there is a reading corner, and the staff will play with the kids,” said Jana Block, mother of two and a repeat customer. “It’s just a nice place to have a great time.”

Cleanliness, in particular, also plays a major part in attracting families to the venue.

“It’s very clean, which is important to me, because a lot of these places aren’t,” said Mindy Saler, who has a 3-year-old daughter. “They put everything in these containers so it’s organized, and when you walk in it’s really engaging for the kids because it looks like a candy store.”

Aside from catering to kids, Yankee Doodle Art Studio also holds special events for adults and those with special needs.

“We had a woman who was 68 who made soap and candles with 10 of her friends,” she said. “Mommy and Me groups come to have a night together and hang out, and we’ve also held events for children with special needs who aren’t comfortable in public crowds. We have after-hours events for them.”

Tortora is proud that Yankee Doodle Art started out as a family venture and hopes to see it continue to grow.

It combines “the talents of a lawyer, a teacher, a counterintelligence agent (her husband), a construction manager (her partner’s husband) and two supportive, creative and silly children who love to doodle,” said Tortora.

“We would love to see the Yankee Doodle community expand and hope one day to be able to share the joy that Yankee Doodle brings with other communities.”


Karp Trial Set for October

Rabbi Frederick “Ephraim” Karp (file photo)

Rabbi Frederick “Ephraim” Karp (file photo)

The trial of Rabbi Frederick “Ephraim” Karp, the Ohio rabbi charged with sexual abuse of a minor and related charges in Baltimore County, has been set for October.

Although he was arrested in January and extradited to Baltimore County then, the case was postponed so that the defense could have additional time to review evidence and prepare for the trial, Karp’s attorney Marc Zayon said.

Karp remains at the Baltimore County Detention Center in Towson. A motions hearing, in which the defense could litigate the collection of evidence, is set for Oct. 7, and a trial date is set for Oct. 28.

According to the testimony of Lisa Dever from the state’s attorney’s office, the alleged victim came into contact with Karp through a close relationship between the rabbi and her family. The abuse took place over the course of five years, starting when the girl was 7 years old until Karp’s arrest, the attorney said. Two of the victim’s sisters have since accused Karp of inappropriately touching them as well, Dever said.

In Ohio, Karp, 51, was director of spiritual living at Menorah Park Center for Senior Living in the Cleveland suburb of Beechwood. He was suspended from his post when the facility learned of his arrest. He was also suspended from Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains (NAJC), which he founded and served as its president.

Baltimore County Police said there was no evidence that any incidents of abuse took place at any local Jewish facilities.

Prior to joining Menorah Park in 2008, Karp was the community chaplain for the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County in New Jersey for seven years.

He was arrested on Jan. 15 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, where he was headed to the annual NAJC conference in Jerusalem.


Kosher Meals for Those in Need Bnos Yisroel joins free summer lunch program

From left: Tov Pizza owner Ronnie Rosenbluth, Roxanne Bagby, event planner Isaac Schleifer, Lisa Johnson and Sally Austin. Bagby, Johnson and Austin are program directors.

From left: Tov Pizza owner Ronnie Rosenbluth, Roxanne Bagby, event planner Isaac Schleifer, Lisa Johnson and Sally Austin. Bagby, Johnson and Austin are program directors.

Bnos Yisroel of Baltimore is one of many locations hosting a summer lunch program during the week, where children and teens are invited to enjoy a free lunch. Although the city has been running the program for many years, this summer Bnos Yisroel will accommodate the city’s Jewish population with a kosher menu. The program, which started July 13, will run through Aug. 21 from noon to 1 p.m.

The program, participation in which is not income-based, is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Maryland State Department of Education and administered locally by the Baltimore Housing Office of Community Services. It is an extension of the National School Lunch Program, which provides eligible children free and nutritious breakfasts and lunches during the school year. While Bnos Yisroel is not directly involved with the ongoing program, it has agreed to make its space available to provide lunches during the summer while school is not in session.

“We sent out a flier about the program through [the Cheswolde Neighborhood Association] and people called and asked if there is a kosher option,” said Isaac Schleifer, one of the primary coordinators for the event at the Bnos Yisroel location. “We asked the Department of Housing if they have a kosher program; they said it’s never been requested before.”

At that point, Schleifer began making arrangements for a kosher menu but immediately hit a roadblock. The cost for the kosher caterer that the city uses exceeded the cost allotted per child, set by the city.

“We called around to the different stores, and the only one who could accommodate the price was Tov Pizza,” said Schleifer.

Schleifer approached Ronnie Rosenbluth, owner of Tov Pizza, and asked if he could handle catering the event for the summer. Rosenbluth had only one condition for his participation.

“If Mrs. Wetstein does it with me, then I’m in,” said Rosenbluth.

Sara Wetstein, who agreed to volunteer with the summer program and be the site manager for Bnos Yisroel, also helps run the National School Lunch Program during the year at other locations. Her job is to ensure each site follows the rules and requirements as well as keep track of everyone coming in for lunch.

“Today was a lot more than we expected,” said Wetstein, on-site at Bnos Yisroel last Friday. “We have a little over 500 [kids].”

Children attended with their parents, and many others were accompanied by camp counselors.

Because the program is not income-based, the children who participate come from all different backgrounds, but Schleifer believes the majority of the kids are those with the greatest need.

“The kids here would otherwise not be able to afford lunch,” said Schleifer.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 24 percent of people in Baltimore City lived below the poverty line from 2009 to 2013.

Ahavas Yisrael, a charitable organization whose mission is to provide food, shelter, clothing and basic living needs for needy Baltimore residents, also partnered with Schleifer and Tov Pizza to help circulate the event to the families they assist.

“There are many hundreds of Jewish families who are struggling, and organizations like Jewish Community Services and Ahavas Yisrael help these poor and needy families,” said Eli Schlossberg, an executive trustee of Ahavas Yisrael. “Anytime you can bring nutritious meals to children — and especially in the summer when they’re not in school — we feel it will get a very good reception.” JT

Path to Service Gladstein fellow to lead Chevrei Tzedek Congregation

Rabbi Avram Reisner

Rabbi Avram Reisner

Rabbinical student Emily Barton was selected, through the Gladstein fellowship in entrepreneurial leadership, by Chevrei Tzedek Congregation to replace Rabbi Avram Reisner, who is retiring in August.

The fellowship, which is run by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, seeks to provide outstanding students with practical experience in community development.

“Chevrei Tzedek are gracious hosts and think deeply and honestly about areas of success and challenge,” Rabbi Lisa Gelber, associate dean of the rabbinical school of JTS, said in a written statement. “The knowledge and leadership — both spiritual and otherwise — that the Gladstein Fellowship
fosters will serve the community well.”

Barton, who grew up in a nonreligious and nonaffiliated family in Vermont, became more involved with Judaism as an adult. She also had a natural affinity of compassion toward colleagues going through challenging times and felt her spirituality deepening as well. Then, after working several years in Seattle as a pastry chef she had a realization.

“I woke up and I didn’t want to go work so I asked myself, ‘if I could do anything in the world, what would it be?’” said Barton. The answer came to her: “I wanted to teach and study religious text, use music and build community.” This led Barton to explore becoming a rabbi.

Her friend suggested she try hospital pastoral work as a test run before committing to rabbinical school, and Barton landed a part-time internship at a hospital despite having a nontraditional background. She was eventually offered a full-time position as a resident chaplain and left about a year later to enter rabbinical school.

Barton is the first of three rabbinical students who will be leading Chevrei Tzedek in the six years the congregation will participate in the Gladstein fellowship. During her time as the congregation’s leader, she will live in Riverdale, N.Y, and make monthly trips to Baltimore in addition to staying in regular contact with the congregation.

After interviewing several candidates and hiring Barton in March, Chevrei Tzedek is pleased with the work Barton has done thus far.

“Emily Barton has not even officially begun, and she’s already energizing our community,” said Debbie Steinig in a written statement, co-chair of the Chevrei Tzedek rabbinic search committee and the newly minted Gladstein liaison committee.

Chevrei Tzedek’s congregation, although small in size, is highly engaged according to Reisner.

“One of the wonderful things about them is that they are a very intellectually active congregation,” said Reisner. “In the course of a month, I saw all of my membership in shul, which usually isn’t the case.”

Reisner is nationally known for his work on bioethics, helping spearhead Magen Tzedek, the conservative movement’s ethical certification of kosher food and for co-authoring the responsum that paved the way for ordination of gay rabbis in the Conservative movement, as well as liturgy for same-sex wedding ceremonies.

Although Reisner does not officially retire until Aug. 15, Barton has already begun engaging the congregation and larger community. When Krieger Schechter Day School students visited JTS this year on a trip to New York, she showed them around the campus.

At the end of August, Barton will spend Shabbat to meet and visit with congregants, and in September she’ll be in town for the High Holidays as well.

“My personal values and the values of Chevrei Tzedek are a great match,” said Barton in a written statement. “The congregation is committed to meeting people in the places they are in their lives without judgment — a value I also hold dear.”

This is the first year that Chevrei Tzedek has participated in the fellowship and the excitement of a relationship between the congregation and JTS is mutual.

“We are thrilled to partner with Chevrei Tzedek,” said Ned Gladstein in a written statement, chairman of the Committee on Institutional Partnerships and also a member on the board of trustees and executive committee at JTS. “The congregation’s demonstration of shared personal support and level of Jewish engagement create an excellent environment in which our fellows can develop their professional and community building skills. We look forward to a long and fruitful relationship.”


Mayor Replaces Police Commissioner Batts replaced by deputy commissioner Kevin Davis

Interim Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at a news conference.

Interim Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at a news conference.

Baltimore’s Jewish community lauded Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s decision to replace Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts last week amid mounting pressure to get violent crime in the city under control.

“There is no one better to access what needs to be done than the person who the police commissioner reports to,” Baltimore Jewish Council Executive Director Arthur Abramson said. “I believe very strongly that something needed to be done to stem the increased number of homicides in the city, and I hope that the new interim police commissioner quickly gets a handle on what needs to be done and does it.”

Deputy Commissioner Kevin Davis, who previously served as Anne Arundel County’s police chief, was named interim commissioner.

The announcement followed months of unrest since the death of Freddie Gray, who sustained injuries while in police custody — May was Baltimore’s deadliest month in 40 years — and increasing public scrutiny of the city’s efforts to stem the violence.

“Recent events have placed an intense focus on our police leadership, distracting many from what needs to be our main focus — the fight against crime. So we need a change,” Rawlings-Blake said at a news conference on Wednesday, July 8. “The people of Baltimore deserve better.”

She gave Batts credit for serving the city with “distinction.”

“Through a broad range of initiatives he helped modernize our police force, he helped put more cops on the streets during peak periods of crime and he brought more transparency and accountability to policing in Baltimore City,” she said.

Members of the Jewish community thought the mayor made the right decision.

“There seems to be a disconnect between the rank and file and members of various communities and the commissioner,” said Nathan Willner, spokesman for Shomrim of Baltimore.

He said Shomrim and other members of the Jewish community met with the commissioner several times.

“He was very receptive on many of the issues that we brought to him. He had made several commitments that he was going to try to implement. Unfortunately, those commitments were not fulfilled,” Willner said, adding that he thinks it could have been due to the nature of the job or other issues in the city taking precedent. “People in the community were hoping to have a closer and more proactive relationship with the commissioner.”

Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said that while Batts was open to ideas, engaging and experienced and served to the best of his ability, the city must do what it can to quickly restore the community’s trust in police officers.

“As I’ve recently crisscrossed the city, connecting one-on-one with citizens and members of our police force, it became increasingly clear that a growing lack of confidence in the direction of our city’s crime-fighting strategy had the potential to severely damage the long-term health of our city,” he said in a statement.

Del. Samuel “Sandy” Rosenberg cited New York City, which had a rift between its leaders and police officers after two were shot and killed, but it didn’t last as long as Baltimore’s issues have, he said.

“What was most striking to me over recent weeks was just the continued rise in the homicide rate to the degree that this was attributable to [a] cutback in police work [in which] officers were not as vigorous in the community as they have been,” he said. Numerous reports cited officers’ fears of scrutiny after the indictments of six officers in Gray’s death.

“There’s nothing that had been done or nothing that had had an impact on the streets by the current Commissioner Batts,” he said. “The proof will be in the performance between now and next April in terms of how we assess the mayor’s decision.”

District 5 City Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector said the “defining moment” for her was when she heard about the recent citizen complaint about a police station closing at 7 p.m.

“That is not acceptable,” she said. “I travel the city all by myself all the time and I’m out late. If I ever was in fear of ­­­I know where they are — I would go to a police district. … It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

She was excited by Davis’ appointment to interim commissioner, saying he was “well recommended.”

Davis most recently served as the chief of police in Anne Arundel County. He came to Baltimore in January after Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh replaced him. He had spent about two decades in the Prince George’s County Police Department, where he served as deputy chief and assistant chief of police.

At the July 8 news conference, Davis said his focus is simple.

“It’s all about the crime fighting and it’s all about the relationship with our community, and the relationship with our community needs to be one of service,” he said.

Batts previously served as the chief of police in Long Beach, Calif., and Oakland, Calif., prior to his time in Baltimore.

His firing came hours after Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #3 released a report critical of the actions of the mayor, Batts and police commanders during the unrest in April and May.

Kevin Harris, spokesman for the mayor’s office called the report “no more than a trumped-up political document full of baseless accusations, finger pointing and personal attacks.” He said the city’s review will be extensive and independent.


City Releases Heroin Report, 10 Recommendations The mayor’s task force calls for overdose plan, data-tracking, outreach and more

The Mayor’s Heroin Treatment and Prevention Task Force released its final report along with 10 recommendations to attack the city’s heroin and opioid epidemic and unveiled a public education campaign on Monday.

The recommendations call for overdose prevention and outreach measures, real-time data tracking, 24/7 on-demand substance abuse treatment, among other measures.

“All of our efforts to make Baltimore safer and healthier will fall short without a more effective and coherent strategy against heroin abuse,” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said at Monday’s news conference. “We have to have a comprehensive and genuine community approach.”

She was joined by city Commissioner of Health Dr. Leana Wen, Congressman Elijah Cummings, Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, members of the task force, advocates and local elected officials.

There were 303 drug and alcohol overdose deaths in Baltimore in 2014, up from 246 in 2013; 192 of those deaths were heroin related, up from 150 in 2013. An estimated 18,900 people in Baltimore use heroin.

Wen underscored how Baltimore historically attacked drug addiction even when its methods were deemed controversial, such as when the city’s needle exchange program was started more than 20 years ago to prevent the spread of diseases through the use of contaminated needles. She said it’s time to “get bold.”

On Monday, the city also launched its campaign to encourage treatment and combat stigma. The news conference was held below a new billboard that directs people to DontDie.org, a new city website with information on the overdose prevention “life-saving” drug naloxone. Billboards and buses will have this information, which is part of a wider education campaign that includes training people on how to administer naloxone, which is a nasal spray.

“It’s easy to use. It’s safe,” Wen, who has worked as an emergency room physician, said. “I have given it to literally hundreds of patients. I watched someone who stopped breathing walk and talk again within seconds.”

Other task force recommendations include increasing data-driven high-impact options for treatment, including universal case management for inmates and recently incarcerated individuals; developing voluntary certification and review of substance use providers; and addressing issues in communities that are home to treatment centers by establishing a standardized “good neighbor agreement” and establishing best practices.

The recommendations come as Gov. Larry Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford continue work in their own task force, which has held several regional summits.

All of our efforts to make Baltimore safer and healthier will fall short without a more effective and coherent strategy against heroin abuse.

While the widely praised naloxone is a large part of the city’s overdose prevention strategy, Congressman Elijah Cummings, the ranking member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said the price of the drug has been going up as demand for it has increased.

“Right here in Maryland, the price of naloxone reportedly increased more than 100 percent in eight months. It went from $19 a dose to $41 a dose,” Cummings said.

He found that when some states, such as New York and Ohio, fought Amphastar, the company that makes the most commonly used form of naloxone, they were able to get rebates on the drug.

He sent a letter to Hogan, Rutherford and Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh urging them to negotiate similar deals. He and Vermont Senator and Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders also sent similar letters to the national organizations of governors, lieutenant governors and attorneys general urging them to negotiate in their states.

“These programs, ladies and gentleman, save lives,” he said. “But when drug companies increase their prices and charge exorbitant rates, they decrease the access to the drug. There’s something awfully wrong with that picture.”

While top officials in all 50 states possibly wrestle with the cost of naloxone, the city will be seeking funding for its recommendations. According to a news release, the city will look to private partners as well as the state and federal government to assist with the estimated $20 million needed over three years to accomplish the recommendations.

“I’m confident that by implementing the recommendations of the task force,” Rawlings-Blake said, “Baltimore City will continue to be a leader and a model for the rest of the state in how we attack this urgent public health challenge.”


Mall Remains Achilles’ Heel While Metro Centre and Foundry Row move forward, Owings Mills Mall is left to wallow

When Sunny Yoo came to Owings Mills Mall 15 years ago to work in Hakky Instant Shoe Repair & Tailor Services, there were more than 100 stores in the mall.

Now Yoo’s store is one of the handful remaining inside a building that has become so empty, it has made its way onto the list at deadmalls.com. He said within five years of his arrival, stores began closing.

“If you look at the mall right now, I don’t see any future,” he said. “They’ve got to build something else.”

On a rainy Thursday afternoon, a few shoppers trickled through the mall including April Wilson, who commutes to work from her home in Carroll County and has been coming to the mall for the last 10 years but now only goes to J.C. Penney.

“A lot of the stores started closing down, and so I limited coming here,” she said. It’s convenient to [where I] work so I still come here.”

Wilson said she is excited about the possibility of an open-air shopping center eventually replacing the mall.

“I’d like it to become like Hunt Valley,” she said. “More open and to freely go into other stores and not worry about the empty halls.”

Cindy Zychowicz also commutes to work from Carroll County and has lived in the area for 21 years. She used to come to the mall often but now only shops at J.C. Penney, Macy’s, Bath & Body Works and Victoria’s Secret. She thinks a new shopping concept will be beneficial to the community.

“I think it’ll be good for the area, good for business,” she said. “I always run to the mall at lunch or after work. And it’s really nice if there’s something convenient [at which] you can just stop on your way home or at lunch time.”

Nearby in the Carefirst BlueCross BlueShield building, which overlooks the mall’s nearly empty parking lot, an afternoon minyan from Chabad of Owings Mills has been meeting since September 2014.

“It’s painful,” said Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen. “Over the past 10 years we’ve watched the mall empty out slowly but surely,” he said.

Katsenelenbogen said the minchah prayer service serves the roughly two dozen observant Jews who work on the Red Run Boulevard corridor, many of whom are lawyers and accountants. He said very few Jews shop at the mall these days.

“It probably needs to come down and be restructured and rebuilt,” he said. “The Jewish community would love to see the Owings Mills Mall come back to life one way or another.”

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff of Har Sinai Congregation said the decline of the mall has been a “travesty.” Sharff moved to Owings Mills six years ago, and upon seeing the mall for the first time was immediatelyreminded of a similar eyesore in his previous home of Tuscon, Ariz.

“There is a mall really close to my [former] congregation that is basically the same thing,” he said. “There are the one or two anchors [stores], and the rest is completely empty.”

Sharff said he will occasionally go to the mall to shop at J.C. Penney or Macy’s, but otherwise he goes to Towson to do his shopping.

“In a pinch it works because it’s so much closer,” he said. “It’s not somewhere I’m going to take my kids.”

Even local officials such as Colleen Brady admit the situation is bleak. Brady is president of the Reisterstown-Owings Mills-Glyndon Chamber of Commerce and said she has lived here since 1993. When her kids were younger she would take them with her when she went shopping at the mall, but she now takes her business elsewhere.

“I want to say that it’s the demise of the indoor malls, and yet Towson is still doing OK,” she said.

An eyesore now, the mall was welcomed and an enormous success when it opened in 1986.

Patrons lauded the easy access from I-795 and then from the Owings Mills Metro Subway Station, which was built one year later. But its reputation as a high-end shopping destination gradually deterioratedbeginning in September 1992, when a Saks Fifth Avenue employee was shot and killed while walking on the path to the station. The path was later closed. That same month, Nordstrom opened a store in Towson Town Center — which is still there and has stood the test of time — while Saks closed in January 1996.

County officials say problems further intensified in 2008 with the onset of the recession, resulting in residents with less disposable income. Since then stores have continued to disappear, and now only the large anchor stores, J.C. Penney and Macy’s, are left.

Appearing like the final nail in the coffin, the Owings Mills mall was highlighted in a New York Times story in January entitled “The Economics (and Nostalgia) of Dead Malls.”

Still, there have been glimmers of hope from time to time for the mall’s future.

In 2011, Kimco Realty purchased half of the property with the intent of developing it into an open-air shopping center, but those plans have not yet been realized.

More recently, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz’s spokeswoman Fronda Cohen said the mall’s owners were actively marketing the property at the International Council of Shopping Centers’ annual conference in Las Vegas in May.

According to ICSC spokesman Jesse Tron, the conference, known as RECon, usually draws about 36,000 people from various developers across the country who are looking to make deals with tenants.

“What that means is leasing deals where you’re looking at bringing retailers into your shopping center,” he said.

Tron said 50 percent of industry deals begin at RECon. But he added that in addition to the trade shows, the conference also serves as a networking opportunity for developers.

“A lot of that is putting the people together to start those conversations,” he said. “That’s why we had people coming [to the convention] during the recession when there was very little going on in terms of retail.”

But Kamenetz expressed optimism about the mall in a statement he made as recently as this month.

I think that the mall, like malls throughout the entire country are passé, and they’re being de-malled. And then the question you ask yourself is, what can we do with the property? And I don’t think it’s a retail play, meaning I don’t think it can be an open type of retail strip.

“We are encouraged that the owners of Owings Mills Mall are finally actively marketing the property, something I have strongly encouraged in many conversations with General Growth Properties and Kimco senior management,” he said in the statement. “We look forward to hearing more about their plans as they secure tenants looking to make the most of the strong Owings Mills market.”

This is a shift in tone from one year ago when Kamenetz criticized both Kimco and General Growth for their inaction on the mall.

“The problem with the mall is we have recalcitrant property owners who don’t want to reinvest in the property the way we think it should be done, but it’s their property, they pay taxes, and there are no code violations,” Kamenetz told the Baltimore Business Journal in June 2014. “Ultimately, I see Metro Centre as expanding into the mall and really making it into more of a continuum.”

Brady said she is also excited about the expansion of Metro Centre and the new construction of the Foundry Row shopping center on Reisterstown Road.

“We encourage all growth because it keeps our residents here,” she said. “By living here, they’re saving so much on commuting costs.”

Metro Centre construction crews are expected to break ground on a 22-story office building later this summer and a 250-room luxury hotel next year, according to Howard Brown, chairman of David S. Brown Enterprises.

“We have a site that’s shovel ready that we can deliver to anybody who’s a large user within a one- to two-year period,” he said of the office building.

When completed, Metro Centre will feature 1,700 residential units, 300,000 square feet of retail space and over one million square feet of office space. The first building to open in 2013 was the Owings Mills Branch of the Baltimore County Library, which shares space with the Community College of Baltimore County, and that was followed by construction of 232 apartments.

Brown said Metro Centre falls into the category of “transit-oriented development” due to its proximity to the Metro Station, which 5,000 people use each day. He thinks this will draw residents who want to “live, work and play” in Owings Mills. Brown also developed the Symphony Center apartments downtown, close to the light rail line.

“The type of residents who are attracted here are looking for more of an urban type of living, where you can go downstairs, walk outside” and go to the library, attend classes, buy a coffee, a drink and pizza and get your nails done, he said. “You can work, play and live here without even getting in a car. Tell me somewhere else that can [offer] that? Downtown Baltimore, maybe. Downtown D.C. New York City. Towson would like to aspire to this.”

Brown thinks all of the new development will eventually form the “downtown” of Owings Mills, although he says residents throughout the county have reason to come here as it is.

“You’ve got T. Rowe Price with 3,000 employees every year. That’s certainly telling you something,” he said.

Brown explained that in the 1980s, Owings Mills and White Marsh were two planned communities that were originally part of a master plan for growth in Baltimore County, and both were designated to have large town shopping centers. However, only the White Marsh community developed as originally intended.

“Owings Mills was multiple land-owners so there really wasn’t a master developer to develop the site,” he said. “So the mall got developed and offices got developed, but there wasn’t any grand plan.”

Brown said he thinks this is the reason the mall has failed for so many years.

“I think that the mall, like malls throughout the entire country, are passé, and they’re being de-malled,” he said. “And then the question you ask yourself is, what can we do with the property? And I don’t think it’s a retail play, meaning I don’t think it can be an open type of retail strip.”

Brown noted that since there is already a BJ’s Warehouse, a Sam’s Club, a Wal-Mart and a Target nearby, another big-box store would not succeed at the site of the mall. In 2012, he expressed opposition to the construction of nearby Foundry Row, which will feature a Wegmans. Brown now says he does not think the addition of Foundry Row will hurt him.

“I think we actually will help it more than it’ll help me,” he said, explaining that the apartments on his property will support businesses in Foundry Row.

It may be hard to envision, but the mounds of earth set to be Foundry Row on Reisterstown Road will soon resemble the look of Hunt Valley Towne Center.

Brian Gibbons, chief executive officer of Foundry Row developer Greenberg Gibbons, said progress is moving swiftly with 88 percent of the retail space having been pre-leased and the office space at 75 percent.

“We feel really good about the project,” he said. “We feel like it’s going to be a real catalyst to Owings Mills.”

In addition to Wegmans, 16 tenants have been confirmed including Old Navy, L.A. Fitness and Sports Authority. Gibbons said regarding the office space, they just signed a lease with LifeBridge Health.

When completed, Foundry Row will have 356,000 square feet of retail space and 40,000 square feet of office space. Gibbons said project completion is estimated for October 2016.

Gibbons believes ultimately it’s economically beneficial for both the mall and Metro Centre to see success. He predicts success for Foundry Row too, but the road to making it happen has been riddled with potholes over the last few years.

In addition to Brown’s opposition in 2012, Foundry Row met protests from members of the community who were part of a movement called the Say No To Solo Coalition and were concerned about the increased amount of traffic to the area and an overabundance of retail space. The movement was sponsored and funded by a prominent public relations professional.

The rezoning of the land on the old Solo Cup plant site for Foundry Row was not controversial within the Baltimore County Council, with only former District 4 Councilman Ken Oliver voting against it. But it later became a political issue for District 2 Councilwoman Vicki Almond, who became at odds with Brown as well as Caves Valley Partners after she voted against zoning for the latter’s mixed-use project in December 2013.

Despite this, Almond was able to fend off a primary challenge from attorney Jon Herbst and get re-elected last November. Herbst had previously run as a Republican against Almond in the 2010 general election but lost handily. The JT reported last year that Kamenetz endorsed Herbst’s campaign.Kamenetz also encouraged former State Sen. Paula Hollinger to run against Almond, but she declined.

Now with the election over and the developers having reconciled, it seems that the mall is the last piece of the puzzle for what is to become the eventual town center of Owings Mills.

Yoo said he does not expect the strip shopping center to be built any time soon, but he remains optimistic for the future of the area.

“There are a lot of people around the mall,” he said. “I don’t know why they stopped coming here.”


Cancer Survival Through Prevention Hadassah uses Check It Out Challenge to spread the word

On Sunday, July 19, Hadassah of Greater Baltimore, the women’s Zionist organization, will host its 2015 Check It Out Challenge, featuring an 8K run, a 5K run/walk and a one-mile family obstacle course starting at Goucher College in Towson.

“[Check It Out] was started [about] 20 years ago by our national organization as a way to educate and empower young women with knowledge about their bodies,” said Jill Sapperstein, president of Hadassah of Greater Baltimore.

Dr. Stacey Keen (right) finishes last year’s Check It Out Challenge. (Provided)

Dr. Stacey Keen (right) finishes last year’s Check It Out Challenge. (Provided)

The Check It Out program, which has reached over 800,000 young women and men throughout the U.S, focuses on breast and testicular cancer prevention. The program features cancer survivors and physicians who present information on awareness, self-examinations and an explanation of mammography.

“Since screenings began in this country, breast cancer mortality rates have been reduced by 30 percent,” said Dr. Stacey Keen, a radiologist.

Keen not only works with breast cancer patients, but also is a survivor.

“I’ve really been there and can tell what people to expect,” said Keen. “There’s a lot of fear around cancer, but it’s not a death sentence anymore. People survive, and that’s why early detection is so crucial.”

Kelli Marinelli, a breast cancer survivor, is a physical education teacher and lacrosse coach at Dundalk Technical High School and discovered Check It Out through the school nurse.

“I wouldn’t be here right now if I [hadn’t taken] care of myself at a younger age,” said Marinelli.

Marinelli has always led an active lifestyle, and despite having no family history of cancer, she was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer in November 2009 at age 33.

If Marinelli had not been diagnosed when she was, the cancer may have metastasized, spreading to other organs. This is referred to as stage IV, or advanced breast cancer, according to breastcancer.org.

“[This cancer] is aggressive when you’re younger, and if you do not take care of yourself, you won’t be able to withstand the disease or the drugs to treat it,” said Marinelli.

When she speaks to students, she emphasizes how important it is to be active and healthy because she knows how much it helped her win her fight with breast cancer.

“You have to know what your body is telling you. You are what you eat, and you are what you do,” said Marinelli.

According to Keen, the recommended age for women to begin screening for breast cancer is between ages 40 to 50; however, men can have testicular cancer as young as their 20s.

Marc Kivitz, an attorney, is a speaker for Check It Out and a survivor of testicular cancer. Every time he speaks at a school, there are two messages he tries to re-enforce.

“The first is to do a self-examination once a month. The second is if you notice any change or have any concern at all, tell someone,” said Kivitz.

Kivitz has been a survivor for several decades and can recall every step of his fight with cancer in detail. It started in 1975 when Kivitz, a senior at the University Maryland, College Park, was taking a shower. He felt a small pain when the water hit his chest, but being athletic and having no family history of cancer, like Marinelli, he brushed it off.

“We’re guys, guys don’t go to the doctor every time we have a small pain. We tough it out; it’ll go away,” said Kivitz. “It doesn’t go away.”

Kivitz noticed that his chest started swelling, and since he didn’t have a general physician at the time, he visited a clinic, where the first doctor he spoke to said it was inflammation.

“‘Come back in a month if it’s still there,’” Kivitz’s doctor told him.

Kivitz ignored the doctor’s orders and went to an appointment with a general physician two weeks later. That physician sent Kivitz to a urologist, who he saw that same day, Sept. 21, 1975. The next day he was admitted to a hospital, and on Sept. 23 he underwent his first surgery. Two days later he underwent a second surgery to determine how far the cancer had spread. Finally, on Sept. 29, doctors removed the white blood cell system that had become a malignant tumor.

“If I had listened to that doctor who said to come back in a month, I wouln’t  be here today,” said Kivitz. “I am certain of it.”

Kivitz not only survived but he did so before much of the information about testicular cancer was known.

“I’m told I’m in a medical journal somewhere,” said Kivitz.

Now that the information is readily available, the Check It Out program is trying to make as many people aware of it as they can.

“It doesn’t matter if you only reach one person if it helps saves a life,” said Ferne Rogow, chairwoman of Check It Out. “Some kids don’t want to listen. You just do what you can and try to make a difference.”

Although getting through to teenagers is difficult, Rogow recalls one moment in particular where it paid off.

“A girl came up to me and said, ‘I have an aunt who has all the symptoms you’re telling us about,’” said Rogow. “That girl went home and possibly saved her aunt’s life.”

Advance registration for the Check It Out Challenge on July 19 at Goucher College is available online at active.com. Packet pick-up will be held at Fleet Feet Sports in Pikesville on Thursday evening, July 16 and on Friday, July 17. Race-day registration is also available beginning at 6:30 a.m. The registration fee is $36 ($40 on race day). Awards will be given for the fastest overall and age-group times in both the 5K and 8K runs.


Edelson to Run for Baltimore City Council Attorney, community volunteer looks to represent District 1

Mark  Edelson


Most attorneys in baltimore traveled less than 8,000 miles in their life’s journey to the Charm City. But Mark Edelson’s journey is anything but typical.

Edelson grew up in Pretoria, South Africa and lived there until he was 15. He came to Baltimore in 2007 and for the last five years has worked at the firm Goldman & Goldman, P.A., specializing in areas of law that include tax planning and real estate. He is running for the open District 1 seat that is being vacated by James Kraft in 2016.

Apartheid ended when Edelson was 8 years old, and he said Nelson Mandela’s release from prison inspired him greatly as a child.

“Those are incredibly important moments in the formative years of a child,” he said. “What he did was
essentially come out of jail at a time of immense political and social strife.”

Edelson points to Mandela as one of his heroes who motivated him to go into public service.

His mother, Glenda, said one of her son’s defining qualities as a child was his integrity and moral compass and said he never hesitated to speak up when there was a problem in school.

“He cannot sit still until he finds a way to change it,” she said.

Edelson, who turns 31 on July 12, said many of his friends in South Africa ended up going their separate ways after high school, and many migrated to other parts of the world. With this in mind, his parents
decided to move to the United States in 1999 in order to bring a sense of stability to their children’s lives (Edelson has a sister) and make the transition “palatable.”

“It was a massive sacrifice on their part,” he said.

The Edelsons settled in Atlanta due to its sizable South African Jewish population and public education system.

With the benefit of the Hope Scholarship Fund, Edelson attended Georgia State University, where he earned degrees in philosophy and criminal justice. It was there, he said, that he began to get involved in service activities through his fraternity.

“I saw around me amazing examples of people who gave their money and their time,” said Edelson, who has continued to stay involved in the community through his work with The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and other organizations. He said his calling for public service comes from the Jewish principle of tikkun olam.

“In my mind I’d say that I’ve been putting myself in public service my entire life,” he said.

Edelson earned a law degree from the University of Maryland in 2010 and then began working at Goldman & Goldman, P.A., where he has litigated from both a prosecutorial and defense perspective.

“It’s been a great experience for me in learning all parts of the litigation realm,” he said.

Law partner Evan Goldman said Edelson has been a vital part of his firm since he arrived five years ago and thinks he will bring a unique perspective to the city given his youth.

“He’s young. He’s aggressive. He cares deeply for the community. He’s willing to look at a problem at a number of different ways and come up with a solution,” Goldman said.

Edelson said he thought about running for office at the beginning of this year after Kraft announced he would not seek re-election in 2016.

On his website, electedelson.com, Edelson outlines his priorities for District 1, which
include public transportation, safety and community relations and fostering startup culture. The site features a link to a report from the Abell Foundation that lists a series of recommendations for Baltimore that include hiring more entrepreneurs and expanding early stage investment.

“It really has all the criteria that you want that is really going to provide the opportunity for growth,” Edelson said of the report. He thinks the city is missing opportunities to grow its service sector.

“We’re not doing enough to help those companies move to the next level,” he said.

The report also listed improvements in public transportation as a recommendation for improving work life in the city. Edelson thinks expanding Baltimore’s water taxi program could significantly cut down on intercity traffic in the short term.

“It’s beautiful, it’s attractive, it’s a great way to get around, and you don’t have to deal with parking
issues,” he said, while adding that a smartphone app for the water taxi service would be useful. “In order to sustain that long-term growth, we have to have additional options for public transportation.”

Edelson said he had mixed feelings about the proposed Red Line that Gov. Larry Hogan recently rejected. He said it would have been useful but was concerned because it was not scheduled to be completed until 2022.

“I think that seven years is too long to wait for better transportation options,” he said.

As part of his platform, Edelson  said he hopes to improve relations  between the local community and
police, which he thinks will be  accomplished through community meetings, where officers are present, and citizens-on-patrol walks.

“There is a very good relationship between police and community in the First District,” he said. “I think that what we could do to better that relationship is to really strengthen the dialogue.”